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Raphaella Brice and the Black Madonna

Raphaella Brice with her mural “Madonna’s Earth,” which now hangs outside the Stowe Street Cafe in Waterbury. Photo by MK Monley.
For artist Raphaella Brice, the Black Madonna over the river in Waterbury is about a community’s self-discovery. Even more so, it represents a return to herself. 

It’s been a long journey, one that literally started on the road; Brice was born in 1997 on the side of a highway in Florida. 

She spent her early years in New Haven, Conn. Brice’s Haitian family, like most Haitian families, is intensely spiritual. “We went to church all the time,” she remembered. “I couldn’t escape it.” 

Even before she was born, Brice was destined for art. By chance, her mother saw a PBS documentary about the Renaissance artist Raphael and was fascinated by his story. “She named me Raphael, but the hospital added the “la” at the end. I always knew the story, but it wasn’t until I started creating art in Vermont that I circled back to the meaning.”

Brice went to high school in Waterbury, Conn., and attended Manhattanville College in West Chester County, N.Y. 

Life changed when she went to study in Belgium for a year. She stepped out on her own for the first time. “It was a journey of self-discovery, the first time I really allowed myself to develop into my own person.” 

 Brice came to Vermont for AmeriCorps and ended up discovering art through it. “It was by accident. I had a mentee that went to the Generator Makerspace and I felt the call to start creating art.” And she felt called to purify herself from the baggage and burdens that had accumulated over the years. “Coming to Vermont was a purging moment for me. Vermont is full of people running from something and finding themselves here.” 

She started a life of mindfulness and prayer with “lots of discipline, knowing that I needed to tend to my inner child. I had gotten pretty low, but I had this inner knowing that I was going to come back.”

 The Black Madonna wasn’t her idea. While contemplating what to submit for the Fletcher Free Library Mural competition, a colleague suggested it. “Why not the Black Madonna?” 

 Brice submitted her proposal for “Black Freedom, Black Madonna, and the Black Child” and heard right away of her acceptance. She jumped in, learning the media on the fly. It took six weeks and the result was a 16 x 12-foot mural that now adorns the side of the library. 

 It wasn’t until Brice finished the mural that the significance of the piece and its healing properties came to life. 

 Brice’s mother lost her mother at 12, leaving a gaping hole. The Black Madonna filled it. “She cried for three straight months, then made the Virgin Mary her mother,” the same way she filled the gaping holes in Haiti. The Black Madonna, known in Haiti as the Vodoun lwa Erzulie Dantor and the Catholic image Our Lady of Czestochowa, was a revolutionary spiritual force. “This spirituality — the fusion of African Spirituality and Catholicism — literally freed my ancestors from the French colonizers.” 

 When the mural went up on June 15, two circular rainbows appeared above it. Brice took it as an affirmation of her work. “The universe knew that this was what I needed to do. I realized that we do all these things to be seen when in reality we just need to see ourselves. Doing that piece was a validation of who I was.” 

 On Saturday, Sept. 30, there will be the unveiling of her new mural, “Madonna’s Earth,” at Stowe Street Cafe in Waterbury. The Mother emerges from the Earth gathering the global family in her loving embrace. The vibrant fluidity of the colors and lines mirror the fluidity of Haitian history, the Black Madonna, and Brice’s life.

It’s hard not to see a kind of giving back to Vermont in what Raphaella Brice found. For central Vermont seeking to navigate racism and the vast array of challenges we face — the flooding, climate change, opioids, polarization — the mural comes together as a kind of healing mandala in service of a community striving to purge itself and see itself as it should be.